Overcoming Great Obstacles...and Helping Others Do the Same
People of NIBR: Grazia Piizzi
Grazia Piizzi, a NIBR investigator in Global Discovery Chemistry- Oncology and Exploratory Chemistry, based in Basel, was a participant of IMPACT, a women's leadership training program at NIBR. Together with a few other women from this program, she developed, and got approval for, the Developing World Mini-Sabbatical Program. Piizzi is currently involved in starting a women's employee resource group in Basel. Beyond that, and on her own, Piizzi is working on new scientific capability building with local universities, hoping to make it easier for today's young scientists to pursue a career in science.
Piizzi grew up in Gravina, a small town in southern Italy. Her family was conservative and religious: the women stayed home, cared for their children, and lived a quiet life. "I felt I was born in the wrong place," says Piizzi. "School, education, and learning were the most important things to me, and I wondered, 'Am I an alien here? Is everyone else right and I'm the only one wrong?'"
Her teachers noticed that she was the only child in the school who didn't want to go home at the end of the day. She loved her textbooks, and during the long summer vacation, she would keep checking with the local bookstore to see if the books for the coming year had arrived.
From an early age, she was curious about the physical world. One night when she was doing the family dishes, she found herself wondering why the water in the plastic container in which she immersed the plates before rinsing them was warmer than the source-water in the pot on the stove. Was it because she was agitating the water by moving the plates in and out? Or was the plastic dishpan better than the metal pot at retaining the heat? Perhaps both, she and her teacher concluded.
Although her father felt there was no need for a girl to get educated beyond the 5th grade, Piizzi insisted on going to high school, where she found there was one subject she loved: chemistry. "We had the worst teacher on the planet—a sweet man with zero skill at managing the classroom. Still, I paid attention to him and tried to learn as much as possible. Chemistry was what I wanted to do."
After high school, Piizzi enrolled at the University of Rome, where she supported herself through tutoring jobs, paying for her own tuition. By the time she graduated, she was engaged, and her fiancé was working in Ottawa. It had always been Piizzi's dream to get a Ph.D. in the United States, so without knowing much about the admissions process, she applied to graduate school at three universities. She was rejected by all of them, so she called to understand why. She got through to someone at UCLA, and upon being told there were 300 applicants for 20 places, Piizzi asked if she could do research for free for a chemistry professor in the department. She was given the email address of Prof. Michael Jung, and she is forever thankful that he took her on. "He was a great person, like a father to me." After working with him, she reapplied for the Ph.D. program and was accepted. Her thesis was the total synthesis of ouabain, a naturally occurring chemical with cardiovascular effects, and it led to three publications and one review paper.
A postdoc followed at MIT. By then, Piizzi was married, with a six-month-old baby, and she relied on her husband, "the companion of my life," to help her through a postdoc in organic chemistry, working on the total synthesis of irofulven, an anti-tumor agent. "It should not be underestimated how much your family can help. There were whole days when I didn't see my daughter. But I knew my research was important and that the struggle for my family would end soon."
After that, Piizzi began work at NIBR. She spent three years at the Cambridge site, and when her husband got a job in Zurich, she asked to be transferred to Basel, where she presently works in the oncology field.
Beyond working hard at drug discovery, Piizzi also tries to help other young scientists from underprivileged backgrounds and countries so perhaps they won't have as hard a time as she did. Although she herself was driven to persevere through what appears to be an innate confidence, she worries about other talented people who are thwarted: "What if others don't have that kind of determination? How can people devoted to diversity and inclusion find young talented people who may not have confidence? How can we help the ones struggling with support or lacking a 'pedigree'?"
In 2009, Piizzi joined IMPACT, a NIBR HR program to help selected women managers develop leadership skills. Through this program, women from all over NIBR came up with ideas for Novartis projects. The Developing World Mini-Sabbatical Program is one such idea: a scientific sabbatical combined with social impact. Scientists from NIBR (initially from the Basel site) will travel to the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases in Singapore, for instance, for one to three months. There, they will go to a local institution, such as a hospital or a school, and teach laboratory techniques or make presentations. They will also spend time at the local NIBR site. This will strengthen collaboration between NIBR sites and bring the large NIBR community together to take social responsibility in the local area by helping people develop basic skills.
The mini-sabbatical, funded by the Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, is designed to be of benefit to the visiting associate, the host site, and the origin site. The program, which will be rolled out soon, offers an ideal opportunity for candidates to understand patient needs in the developing world and bring back new perspectives.
Piizzi, now the mother of two, is presently interested in creating, with the aid of others, a NIBR women's employee resource group in Basel. Piizzi hopes the nascent group will be more than a networking organization: the way she envisages it, the group will collect the stories and struggles of women in the NIBR community and come up with a list of action items to help address any issues.
Ever sympathetic to people who must struggle, Piizzi says, "I've had this great opportunity. I think how can I do better? How can I help others?"
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